Dr. Jo Watts Williams, 1929-2021

The Elon community mourns the passing of Vice President Emerita Jo Watts Williams '55, who died Sept. 16 at the age of 92.

Dr. Jo Watts Williams ’55, who was associated with Elon for more than 75 years and contributed greatly to the quality of life in Alamance County, died Sept. 16 at her home in Burlington, North Carolina. A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 20, at First Presbyterian Church, 508 West Davis St., Burlington. You can view a live stream of the service here. Following the service, the family will receive friends at The Inn at Elon, 605 N. O’Kelly Ave., Elon, N.C. A private committal service for the family will be held at Magnolia Cemetery in Elon, N.C.

Jo Williams’ death comes less than two months after the university’s board of trustees approved the naming of the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education in recognition of her lifetime of distinguished service. A $10 million gift to Elon by the Williams family – sons William (Lee) Williams III and his wife, Beth, through the Beth and Lee Williams Foundation, and Dr. Randall Williams and his wife, Elizabeth – will provide permanent funding for numerous scholarships support for faculty, administration and the university’s community partnerships. (Read details about the school’s naming.)

“Dr. Williams’ service to our university spanned five presidents – Jo has been the common thread through Elon’s growth,” said President Connie Ledoux Book. “At every moment in the life of the institution, Jo was there building community, warmly embracing each of us and sharing her endless love.

Jo Watts Williams at her 90th birthday party with (l-r) President Emeritus J. Fred Young, President Connie Ledoux Book and President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert.

“Jo has also been a personal friend and mentor for me. I was proud and humbled to have her at my side the day I began my service as Elon’s ninth president. She has been a role model for intelligence, integrity, strength of character and always a spirit of warmth, grace and dignity. We are better people because we have known Jo Watts Williams. She embodies all that is good about the Elon community and we will forever celebrate her remarkable life.”

Jo Watts was born on May 26, 1929, in the White Store community of Anson County, N.C., the youngest of eight children of James C. Watts and Blanche Rogers Watts. Neither of her parents had attended college, but they were committed to the importance of education. They raised money to hire a teacher for the town’s school and ensured that all of their children attended college.

Following her graduation from Deep Creek (N.C.) High School, Williams followed the path of all of her siblings, enrolling in Elon College in 1945. During her college years, she met fellow Elon student William Leaford Williams Jr., and the two were married on June 13, 1948. She combined her studies with work, serving as secretary to President Leon Edgar Smith for four years. She completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and graduated from Elon in 1955.

Following college, Williams spent 14 years as a public school teacher in North Carolina, working in Alamance County Schools, Concord City Schools and Burlington City Schools. She was a Teaching Fellow and earned her master’s degree in education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1971 and a doctorate at UNCG in 1973.

President Emeritus Earl Danieley and Vice President Emerita Jo Watts Williams in 2016.

In 1969 President J. Earl Danieley recruited Williams to accept a position on the Elon College faculty in the Department of Psychology and Education. She advanced from instructor to the rank of professor, and in 1977 was named associate dean of academic affairs and director of the Learning Resources Center. Two years later, President J. Fred Young appointed Williams director of development and soon promoted her to be Elon’s first vice president for development. She served in that role for 16 years, providing administrative leadership, strong trustee and donor stewardship and crucial fundraising success that fueled the institution’s growth.

Jo Watts Williams celebrates the success of the “Pride” fundraising campaign in the 1970s.

She led four major Elon fundraising campaigns and secured the first $1 million gift for the college. She also initiated the college’s planned giving program and oversaw major gifts, annual giving, alumni and parent relations, church relations, foundation and corporate relations and the publications and public information office. The Elon endowment grew from about $3 million in the 1970s to more than $23 million in 1995.

Williams was named special assistant to President Young in 1995, representing Elon in the Alamance-Burlington community and continuing her personal relationships with many donors and friends. In 2010 President Leo M. Lambert named Williams vice president emerita and she continued to be active in the life of the university and nurtured philanthropic relationships between generous families and Elon.

Jo Watts Williams received the university’s top award recognizing leadership in business, the Frank S. Holt, Jr. Business Leadership Award, in 2008.

“Jo Watts Williams was among the most prominent architects of today’s Elon University,” said President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert. “As a respected faculty member and a talented administrator, she strengthened every aspect of the university and touched the lives of thousands of students. As a leader in our wider community, she was a major contributor to the quality of life in Alamance County, helping to make possible the medical facilities and senior living communities that are enjoyed every day by thousands of people. She exemplified the value of civic engagement and the impact that one person can make in the lives of others. But most of all, she was a dear and true friend to me and countless others.”

Williams said her life had three priorities: her family, her university and her community. She leaves a legacy of leadership in Alamance County, serving as one of the driving forces in the complex merger of Memorial Hospital and Alamance County Hospital and the construction of Alamance Regional Medical Center (ARMC), which opened in 1996. She served on the Memorial Hospital Board and continued on the ARMC board. She was also instrumental in the construction on the former Memorial Hospital property of Alamance Extended Care, which includes the Village at Brookwood retirement community and Edgewood Place. Williams served as a board member for the Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, Wachovia Bank & Trust Co., United Way, The Alamance Foundation, Alamance-Caswell Hospice, Alamance County Habitat for Humanity, the Alamance County chapter of the North Carolina Symphony, Salvation Army and Burlington Boys and Girls Club. She was also a trustee and ruling elder in First Presbyterian Church and was named Woman of the Year by the Burlington Civitan Club in 1982.

A residence hall in The Oaks neighborhood is named in honor of Jo Watts Williams.

Williams was named Elon’s Distinguished Alumna of the Year in 1995, was awarded the Elon Medallion for outstanding service to Elon in 1998 and received the Frank S. Holt Business Leadership Award in 2008. In 2013, the university named a residence hall in The Oaks neighborhood on campus in her honor, and her portrait hangs in a conference room that bears her name in the president’s office suite in Powell Building. In 2014 she was recognized by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory with the state’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.

Williams was a generous and consistent donor to Elon through more than five decades, supporting scholarships, academic programs, athletics and building projects. She was a member of the Elon Society, Phoenix Club and the Order of the Oak planned giving society, and she and her husband created the William L. and Jo Watts Williams Scholarship.

Williams is survived by her sons William Leaford (Lee) Williams III (Beth), of Wilmington, North Carolina; and Dr. Randall Watts Williams (Elizabeth), of Raleigh, North Carolina. She is also survived by four grandchildren: Margaret Elizabeth (Betsy) McDonald and Angus McDonald, William Leaford (Ford) Williams IV (Anne), Watson Randall (Watt) Williams (Alyssa), and Timmons Elizabeth Williams; along with six great-grandchildren: Catherine Ellen (Catchie) McDonald, Margaret Elizabeth (Mae) McDonald, Lewis Sprunt (Lew) Williams, Harrison Leaford Williams, Sallie Labouisse Williams and Cardiff Reid Williams.

She was predeceased by her parents, James and Blanche Watts; her husband, William Leaford Williams; one grandchild, Steele Carrington Williams; and seven siblings: Sue Watts Colclough, J. Eugene Watts, J. Cecil Watts, Daniel T. Watts, Hal H. Watts, Blanchard K. Watts and C. Edwin Watts.

Memorials may be made to the William L. and Jo Watts Williams Scholarship, 2600 Campus Box, Elon University, Elon, NC 27244; or to First Presbyterian Church, 508 West Davis St., Burlington, NC 27215.